Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of snoozers from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio. Fortunately, yesterday’s race did not end up being one of those. There was a point early on when I thought that it could be, but the circumstances played out where it was time well spent to watch it on what was a beautiful Sunday afternoon here in Nashville.
For those that don’t know (is there really anyone who reads this site to find out who won?); Graham Rahal started thirteenth and won by a relatively large margin at the end. Since Rahal was born an hour away in nearby Columbus, it’s not a stretch to call Mid-Ohio his home track. It doesn’t hurt that his grandfather raced there and his father, Bobby Rahal, won there twice in the eighties. Combine that with the fact that Rahal is now a mere nine points from points leader Juan Montoya, and this was a very special and emotional day for the emerging young Rahal.
The race started looking like another Scott Dixon runaway. Dixon had won three of the past four at Mid-Ohio and five of the past eight. He won the pole and got a somewhat curious quick jump at the start before he pulled away from the pack with ease. The first round of green-flag pit stops had just begun when debris from Takuma Sato’s car brought out a full-course yellow. Dixon had not pitted yet, so he ended up coming back out mid-pack.
Juan Montoya was the beneficiary of the caution. He had been running just slightly ahead of mid-pack and had not been having a good weekend. Suddenly, Montoya found himself in front when Tristan Vautier and Justin Wilson had to pit for their pit strategies. Once in front, Montoya stayed there for most of the middle portion of the race.
After the second set of pit stops, it appeared to be a battle between Montoya and Josef Newgarden – but Montoya appeared to be in full control. Dixon was mired in mid-pack and seemed destined to finish there. The booth announcers had just said that the only thing that could save Dixon was another yellow flag; when Dixon’s teammate, Sage Karam, mysteriously spun on Lap 66 to bring out that caution.
As much as the fist caution appeared to be a lifeline for Montoya, this caution was a torpedo. Dixon pitted early and Rahal pulled into the pits just before the pits were closed for the caution. All the leaders pitted under the caution and Rahal found himself up front, where he stayed for the win. Justin Wilson finished second, making it a one-two finish for Honda. Simon Pagenaud filled out the podium by coming in third. The two leaders before the spins, Montoya and Newgarden, finished eleventh and thirteenth respectively.
This was not the typical Mid-Ohio. The aero-kits have caused problems in the past but they seemed to actually help the racing at Mid-Ohio, where passing has always been at a premium. There was good racing behind the leaders also. Was this the best race I’ve ever seen at Mid-Ohio? No, but it’s probably in the top-five or six over the past few decades that I’ve been watching races there. And Graham Rahal continued his magical season. Unlike past seasons, it’s getting easier to like Graham Rahal this season. In the past, I thought he was a brash kid that had no results to back up his boasting. Now he’s showing his talent as well as the talent of his team. I’ve gained a ton of respect for Rahal this year.
TV Coverage: When I saw that David Hobbs was joining the booth, I was afraid it would be another case of unprepared mumbling with a few tired one-liners thrown in for good measure. Instead, we got the David Hobbs that we enjoy seeing on the Formula One telecasts. He was much more prepared and actually added several comments that contributed to the telecast, not just repeating something someone else had said. Plus, his humor was actually…humorous.
I don’t know if it was because the race aired on CNBC, but I was perturbed at the lack of the side-by-side box. I’ve really gotten spoiled with that feature and I found it very annoying that every commercial completely went away from the telecast.
Whoever makes the call on which shot to use had a bad day. I counted at least three times when they were following a tight battle heading into a corner, when they cut away to show a meaningless pit stop. Put stops are important to show, but not in favor of a tight on-track battle.
Newgarden’s Future: If Josef Newgarden is seriously debating between staying at CFH Racing and jumping to a team like Chip Ganassi Racing; the performance of his current crew may make it an easy decision for him. Once again, his crew dropped the ball when making a crucial pit stop. On Newgarden’s first stop while running with the leaders, the left-front tire changer dropped a wheel nut. That happens on the best teams, but they don’t waste valuable time fumbling around looking for it. They simply grab the spare on their belt and use it instead.
How many times have we seen Newgarden’s crew cost him several positions over the past couple of seasons? Now that he is in contention much more often, it is becoming even more obvious.
Loyalty to Sarah Fisher and Wink Hartman is one thing. But by staying at CFH Racing, Newgarden is hindering his career and earnings potential. He has two race wins this season and may have possibly won a couple of more, had his crew met expectations. If an owner like Chip Ganassi is talking to you, I’d say make that jump and don’t look back.
The Spin: I’m usually not a conspiracy theorist, but when Sage Karam spun to bring out a very convenient yellow for his teammate, Scott Dixon, I turned to Susan and said “He did that on purpose”. That was long before Townsend Bell wondered out loud if that was just a coincidence. I’m not an engineer and can’t really comment on the trajectory of a car; but that sure was an odd looking spin.
It’s been done before. In 2006, most believe that Bryan Herta spun late on purpose at Sonoma to help give teammate Marco Andretti his first career win. Going a little further back, Marco’s grandfather was heard over the radio during the 1991 Indianapolis 500, asking “Do we need a yellow?” This was in the late stages when Rick Mears was pulling away from Mario’s son and teammate, Michael Andretti. Shortly after he was heard asking if they needed a yellow, Mario’s car was suddenly stalled in a precarious position at the entrance of the pits.
Sage Karam said several times before and after the Iowa race that it was his job to help Dixon win the championship. When Dixon fell out at Iowa, was when Karam started going for the win. In yesterday’s race, Dixon was still in contention but desperately needed a timely yellow. It was delivered with Karam’s odd looking spin.
Do I think Karam spun out on purpose to help his teammate? Absolutely. Do I think he or the team should be punished? Absolutely not. It’s gamesmanship and a part of racing that has been going on for decades. It’s no different than what they were talking about earlier when Team Penske pitted Simon Pagenaud early with the sole intention of coming out ahead of Dixon and holding him up to help preserve Montoya’s lead in the points. Next time, Karam just needs to look a little more convincing.
LED Panels: The much-publicized LED position lights that debuted this past weekend were not as intrusive looking as I thought they would be. In fact, I found myself wishing they were a little bit bigger so that I could see them better. I did like seeing when drivers were on the push-to-pass button and where the drivers were in the field. I think they still have a couple of kinks to work out on the pit-box timing, but overall – I’d say it was a successful debut.
American Resurgence: Don’t look now, but Americans have won four of the past five races in the Verizon IndyCar Series. As Townsend Bell pointed out in yesterday’s telecast; they are young winners also.
There was a debate on social media after the race whether or not this would be of any long term benefit for IndyCar to attract new fans. I can’t say for certain that it will, but I know this much – it sure can’t hurt.
Robin Miller has been pining for years to get an Andretti-Rahal rivalry going to draw in US fans. Rahal is now doing his part, but it remains to be seen if Marco will ever hold up his end of the bargain in order for that rivalry to come to fruition.
But if IndyCar can figure out a better way to spotlight their American drivers and capitalize on it – it’s got to help in the long run. Ryan Hunter-Reay winning the championship in 2012 fell flat. So did his winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2014. Was that Hunter-Reay’s fault? I don’t think so. Was it a sign that US fans just don’t care? Possibly, but IndyCar has to be more proactive in marketing their young US stars than what they have done in the past.
Payback: On Saturday, Sage Karam held up Graham Rahal in the first round of qualifying and Rahal was none too pleased in interviews and on social media. Before Sunday’s race, Karam wrote it off as “typical Graham” and didn’t think he had done anything wrong.
After Sunday’s race, Rahal was singing a different tune and referring to Karam as “my buddy” for the mysterious spin hat brought out the timely caution.
All in All: For a track that has been known to present a few snoozers in the past, Mid-Ohio delivered. Graham Rahal was a popular winner there and he has certainly tightened up the points battle. With two races to go, Rahal now trails Montoya by only nine points and has stretched out his lead over third place Scott Dixon to twenty-five points. Last Tuesday night on Trackside, Curt Cavin blatantly said that Graham Rahal would not win this championship and that it would come down to either Juan Montoya or Scott Dixon.
I wouldn’t be too sure. Graham Rahal is riding a wave of momentum and confidence. How ironic would it be if after becoming such a punch line throughout the season, if the championship was actually won by a Honda driver? Honda is a joke no more. Seven of the Top-Ten cars were Honda powered, including the top two steps on the podium. Several, myself included, wrote Honda off back several months ago. They run all sixteen races for a reason.
There are two races to go. One is the 2.5 mile oval known as the Tricky Triangle at Pocono. The other is a double points paying road race at Sonoma. This championship has become very exciting, due in large part to the exciting finish at Mid-Ohio.